History of Grain Growing in Northern New Mexico

The Introduction of Wheat to the Southwest

Until the Spanish came, the grain of choice here was maize, which found its way via trade to what is now New Mexico about four thousand years ago.

Spanish missionaries traveling with the conquistadors, needing a suitable grain to create their communion bread, brought the first wheat to the Southwest. Sonora White Wheat was the first crop they planted in 1599, within one year of the arrival of Juan de Onate and his entourage, who settled in San Gabriel in Ohkay Owingeh in the Rio Grande valley just north of Espanola, New Mexico.

By 1640 it was being widely grown, alongside “espinguin.” which they also brought to the Southwest.

Early Mills

The earliest mills were the  mano and matate—found in neolithic settlements nine thousand years ago and evidence of the transition from nomadic to farming lives.

Early grain mill
Maximillalno Cruz, Taos

Along with their wheat, the Spanish brought their technology for the molino, a small mill with a horizontal water wheel wheel powered by acequia water diverted through a steep mill race and housed in a small crib-like structure. In the Spanish Colonial era, each village had an acequia, or communal irrigation ditch, and each acequia had a communal molino.

The number of molinos is hard to estimate given the low population of NM in the Spanish Colonial era and small number of villages.

The molino’s horizontal mill stones averaged 30 inches across and 6-12 inches thick. The lower stone was stationary. Grooves carved in the stone guided the flour out the edge of the stone. These grooves wore down and had to be constantly recarved.

The volume of wheat produced was just enough to support the population; very little or no surplus for sale. This was a subsistence lifestyle.

The Transition From Molinos to Roller Mills

Demand for flour changed with the arrival of the army in 1846. More land was devoted to growing wheat and large mills using industrial-revolution technology started being built by 1849. The components and technology for large mills were brought here from the East around.

Roller mill, Mora Valley, NM
Roller mill located at La Cueva in Mora County, NM.

There were hundreds of water-powered, steel roller mills across northern NM after the middle of the 19th century

These mills were designed to produce  white flour. They were highly calibrated, water-powered, with leather belts, and complex mechanisms designed to remove the bran, germ, oils. The high heat destroyed any remaining nutrients, leaving only the starchy white endosperm unlike stone mills, which retained the whole grain in the flour they produced.

These mills began to decline in the 1920s as a result of the declining economy and changing weather patterns. They finally died around the second world war when there were no farmers to farm and no workers to run the mills, having left for the army or industrial jobs in the city that paid better.

Visit the Cleveland Roller Mill in Cleveland near Mora, NM. Over Labor Day weekend for Millfest they fire up the mill and you can see it in action. Or visit El Rancho de Las Golondrinas in Santa Fe during the Fall Harvest Festival to see their stone mill in operation as well as a molino and a sorghum mill.